What are the Most Common Types of CNC Machines?

20 January 2020

CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machinery can be found in countless manufacturing applications. Embedded microprocessors and proprietary machine instructions control lathes or milling machines. Elsewhere, in a refitted factory, it’s a plasma cutter or a laser array that executes the computer codes. As long as the tools and mounting systems accept a computer interface, there’s really no limit to the forming operations that can be carried out by an automated CNC workstation.

Automated CNC Milling Machines

Milling tools look a little like fluted drill bits, but that’s where the similarities end. Instead of cutting sharply defined holes, the flat or bull-nosed rods move on all three axes as they cut and form hardened metal workpieces. Two-dimensional contours and 3D geometries are exactingly formed by the automated tools as they spin their sharpened flutes while controlled by a 3 or 6-axis machine armature.

CNC Controlled Plasma Cutting

Replacing the fluted milling tool, a plasma torch focuses a superheated gas flame. Plasma cutters can apply thousands of degrees of heat, so harder alloys are typically processed through these workstations. The equipment is fast, incredibly accurate, and now a lot more affordable than it used to be. Indeed, thermal torches can cut through centimetres of hardened steel alloy like it is butter. Composed of superheated, super-excited gasses, the ionized stream works best on electrically conductive metals. Plasma CNC machines can operate underwater, which is perhaps best since the electrode arcs produce a lot of molten waste.

Separating CNC Lathe Workstations

Perhaps it’s the fault of industry insiders, but computer numerical control lathes often are wrongly referred to as milling machines. Technically speaking, metal is “milled” from a workpiece, but this time there are only three possible axial components in action. The lathe table spins a rod-like workpiece, then the lathe cutter moves up and down, backwards and forwards. For the third axial component, the tool can move at an angle to add contours and extra-fine details to a quickly forming component. Making the process possible, it’s the spinning action that adds the computer coded geometry to a rotating part’s entire circumference.

There are two final technologies, which we’ll describe right now. As a non-contact energy source, CO2 and Nd (Neodymium) lasers are being used to impart CNC coded details to the hardest imaginable super-alloys. Plasma torches are also used in this field, but the energy required to generate a super-heated plasma stream can become prohibitively expensive. Yttrium, paired with aluminium and garnet (Nd: YAG) lasers are also utilized here. Last but certainly not least, automated EDM machines use a super-heated “spark” to electrically vapourize and subtract waste metal. Electric Discharge Machines create complex component shapes out of hardened alloys.

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